A central government agency has found discrimination against workers within a Canadian institution specifically designed to root it out.
The Treasury Board Secretariat found last week that the Canadian Human Rights Commission, whose mandate is to protect the core principle of equal opportunity, discriminated against Black and racialized employees.
A decision dated March 6, obtained by The Canadian Press, says the commission breached the "no discrimination" clause in its collective agreement with three major public service unions.
"I encourage the parties to engage in mediation to seek a meaningful resolution to the issues outlined in this policy grievance," Carole Bidal, an associate assistant deputy minister at the agency, said in her decision.
"As federal institutions, we seek to create a workplace that is diverse and inclusive, and where every public servant can make the best possible contribution to serving Canadians."
The Association of Justice Counsel said in a statement that the decision is "an important win," and one that will have consequences across the federal public service.
The union, which represents government lawyers, had filed a formal grievance in 2020, in tandem with the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees.
The grievances alleged that "policies, procedures, practices and attitudes" had a negative impact on Black and racialized people and were "barriers to their advancement, health, safety and overall well-being."
In a press release, the lawyers union said it was dissatisfied with the commission's response when employees told management about their experiences after the commission made a public statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
"We attempted to work with the commission to help improve the workplace and help the commission regain the trust of its racialized and Black employees," the justice counsel association said in a press release on Thursday.
But the commission responded by "conducting a unilateral, non-inclusive investigative process involving outside parties without fully consulting with employees or their bargaining agents," it said.
"Racism has absolutely no place in our institutions," Justice Minister David Lametti said in a statement, adding that the information arising out of the grievance is "both concerning and disappointing, not least because of the institution involved."
Lametti noted that the chief commissioner's position is currently vacant and said "we are working to appoint new leadership."
He said he had a "frank conversation" with the current leadership to discuss the steps the institution is taking to address the issue.
The commission said in an email Thursday night that it has an updated action plan to deal with the effects of societal systemic racism and discrimination as an employer, service provider and regulator, and human rights advocate.
"As an employer, we are committed to creating an open, healthy, safe and inclusive workplace that has at its core the principles of anti-racism and equity," the commission said.
"We value and respect the diversity of our commissioners, leadership and staff. We are mindful of the various historic and structural inequities that have created societal barriers for Indigenous, Black and other Racialized people.
"We are committed to ensuring that anti-racism and equity measures continue to promote full participation of our diverse staff."
Bidal's decision said that the commission had already taken "proactive steps to address these matters," and had indicated an interest in engaging with bargaining agents and employees to find a solution. It did not detail what steps the commission has taken.
The lawyers union said Thursday that in light of the Treasury Board's decision, it hopes the commission's leadership will now join the calls for a formal audit. It had written to parliamentarians and the federal auditor general with such a request in 2021.
"If the CHRC is to maintain the trust and confidence of Canadians to protect them from systemic racism, then it must first look inwards and reform its internal practices," the union's press release said.
The union added that following the Treasury Board decision, it is "considering its options" in consultation with its members and sister bargaining agents.
The Treasury Board Secretariat said in a statement that it is "committed to ensuring access to a robust grievance process that addresses issues as they arise."
It said it "remains available, at the request of the parties, to support the parties as they continue to work towards achieving a harassment- and discrimination-free workplace."